Q&A: Heike Brachlow

23 Aug

David Trigg: Balance is integral to your recent glass sculptures. What inspired you to create such precarious looking works?

Heike Brachlow: I have been working with balance and movement for about six years now. I like the dichotomy between the solidity and weight of cast glass and its lightness and perceived fragility. The idea for this particular work came from a child’s toy, a balancing bird, which I picked up a couple of years ago. I was doing other things at the time but the concept of a body of work based on balancing toys stayed with me and finally came to fruition for this project.

Heike Brachlow, Equinox I, 2011

DT: Works such as Equinox I make me feel nervous; it seems so solid yet also incredibly fragile. Is there a danger that the works could fall and break?

HB: Equinox I is actually the ‘safest’ piece in the exhibition. It has a heavy lead weight in the lower part, so you would have to knock it quite hard to dislodge it. I think with this body of work, the sense of precariousness is more perceived than actual – any piece of glass is in danger of falling and breaking if it gets knocked over. With a previous body of work, the Movement series, I initially encouraged visitors to ‘play’ with the work. The pieces consist of a pair of heavy cylinders with conical bases, on which they rotate when set into motion. Unfortunately not every visitor had a good sense of material, and some people thought the objects were made of resin, and therefore safe to knock over; I had some breakages, so I stopped encouraging viewers to touch the work.

DT: The fragility of your medium must be a constant challenge, especially when working on this scale. Did you have to overcome any technical difficulties during the production of these new pieces?

HB: Yes, definitely. The forms are quite different to my previous shapes. I tried to cast a larger version of Somewhere, but it failed due to shape-induced stress. I also had to figure out which glue to use for attaching the metal parts, which was difficult, because it had to be a flexible adhesive as glass and metal have completely different rates of expansion. So I spent a lot of time on the phone with adhesive experts. The time frame didn’t help; I only had three and a half months to produce the work for the Jerwood, which didn’t leave much time for experimentation.

Heike Brachlow, Avis III (detail), 2011

DT: How exactly do you cast glass? What does the process involve?

HB: For me, the process begins with making the glass colour. The glass is mixed with colouring oxides and melted in a furnace (or in a crucible in a kiln for smaller amounts), then hot-cast into blocks and annealed (slow cooling to avoid stress in the glass) over night. The kiln casting process usually begins with making a model to take a refractory mould of. Mould making can be a quite convoluted process, for instance I might make a clay, plaster or wooden model to take a plaster or silicone mould of, to then pour wax into the mould to make a positive form, which is invested in a refractory mix to make the final glass mould. The wax is then steamed out, and the mould ready to load with glass for the final casting process. Sometimes it is possible to cut out parts of this process. For the work in the exhibition, I made re-usable silicone positives to take the refractory moulds of. The refractory mould is dried, placed in the kiln and the glass is either loaded directly into the mould, or placed in a reservoir such as a terracotta flower pot, which is suspended above the mould. The kiln is programmed to slowly increase the temperature to about 850ºC, where the glass melts and fills the mould. This can take up to ten hours. After briefly opening the kiln to check the mould has filled, the temperature is dropped to about 480ºC for annealing, then lowered at a slow rate to room temperature. My work is usually in the kiln for a period of one to three weeks, depending on size. Then the glass is removed from the kiln and the mould is carefully broken off with hammer and chisel. Next, the glass is ground and polished — this usually takes about a week and isn’t my favourite part of the process.

Heike Brachlow, Equinox I: work in progress, 2011

DT: Was it hard to make the sculptures balance? I presume the shapes you used were very carefully thought through when you were initially designing the work?

HB: At the beginning of the project, I looked at many different balancing forms and researched the physics involved. The forms came about mainly through model making. I had a rough idea of the direction I intended to take and set myself the goal of coming up with five different forms, then developed the shapes by making model after model. It took some work to get a feeling for how to balance a form but in the end achieving equilibrium was much easier than I thought. I made plaster models of most of the shapes first and realised that the balance could be changed by moving the pivot point. This realisation combined with the knowledge that the centre of mass had to be below the pivot point was a great help. Only Equinox I wasn’t done in plaster before, but was balanced by adjusting the position of the lead weight in the lower part. I wasn’t entirely sure it would work until I put it together two days before the opening!

DT: I know colour is very important in your work. Can you tell me about the colours you chose for the new works and their significance?

HB: It’s true that colour is very important to me, but my interest is purely visual. There is no significance in the sense of meaning or symbolism in my use of colour. When you say ‘the colours I chose’, it sounds easy. In actual fact, I did choose the colours for three of the objects, but the colours for the other two I made myself. This involved running a series of tests, evaluating, running some more tests, making a choice, then melting about 30-50kg of glass in a furnace, taking it out and casting it into blocks the next day. The blocks then go into the annealer to be cooled down slowly so they don’t crack. A day later, they are ready for use.

Heike Brachlow, works from the Six Impossible Things series, 2011

DT: And the colours change under different light conditions don’t they?

HB: Yes. Currently I am mostly working with polychromatic colours, that is colours that change in different types of light. This adds an extra, hidden, possibility of transformation to the work. I have used such colours for Avis I (which changes to green in fluorescent light) and Avis III (which changes to turquoise). Transparent colour in solid three-dimensional objects has some unusual characteristics: it darkens with more thickness, and sometimes changes in hue, as can be seen in Equinox I. This means that even if you use the same glass for a small, thin object and a large, thick one, the appearance of the colour will be quite different in each. Somewhere I is made with a dark red glass, almost so dark it appears black, but the edges, where the form thins out, glow a bright raspberry red in certain light conditions.

DT: Do you think of yourself as a sculptor, glass artist, crafts person or something else? How useful do you think these definitions are in defining practice?

HB: Generally, I call myself an artist. But many people think of artist as synonymous with painter, so I usually qualify, glass artist or sculptor (which is often thought of as working in metal, stone or wood…). Crafts person implies skill in a certain area, but could imply working to other people’s designs. On the other hand, “crafts” also has certain connotations of amateurism. I am not sure how useful these designations are. These days, a lot of overlap happens between fine art, design, and applied arts (or crafts), and there is much discussion. There are different galleries/platforms for the applied arts and fine art, and different materials are seen to belong to one or the other. In America, glass is in between; a fine art material and a craft material, which is as it should be. In my opinion, the designation shouldn’t depend on the material, but on how it is used.

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